June 19 – Victoria Falls to Johannesburg

We are back in civilization tonight, at the Airport Grand Hotel in Johannesburg. Civilization. Right. Noise, crowds, hustle and bustle. Sigh… at least we can pretend.

With all of the hassles of yesterday, everything worked out neatly today. First off, the weather was simply terrific: clear and calm and few if any clouds in the sky. Second, the logistics went off without a snag. Transfer company #1 picked us up at the guest house and got us to the Zimbabwean border where we quickly went through the exit process; that company then turned us over to transfer company #2. Transfer company #2 got us to the Zambian immigration station where we quickly went through the entry process (and, I think, where we astonished — and disappointed — the guy at the counter by having exact change for the exorbitant $135 visa fee to enter a country where we’d be staying for all of three or four hours). And they took us on to the helicopter airfield where transfer company #3 (the one taking us to the airport afterwards) was already there to meet us.

Rainbow over Victoria Falls

Rainbow over Victoria Falls

The flight itself was terrific. There were four of us in a four-passenger helicopter. Fred took the front seat, and I grabbed a window seat in the rear. The other couple split up, each one coming to a side of the back seat, and I am not ashamed to say I refused to budge. I was NOT giving up my window seat!

The pilot passed the length of the falls four times (up, down, up, down) and gave everyone a very good look — and the weather was bright and clear. So I got some great photos from the air, and some decent video footage as well (which I combined with footage taken from the ground the day we arrived in Zimbabwe).

[Note: Firefox 3 users may need this add-on to see YouTube videos.]

(I also volunteered to take the couple’s photo for them with their camera and they were pleased by that. Maybe not enough to forgive me for not giving up my window seat, but hey… They’re tour operators from South Africa and can come back sometime. I’m not in the travel business and I came 8000 miles for this helicopter trip!)

In all, we both felt the helicopter ride over on the Zambia side was nicer than the one in Zimbabwe would have been. In addition, it meant we actually DID something in Zambia other than just fly out from there, which made us both feel a lot better about the ridiculous visa fee that Zambia charges. So, all in all, it was one more case of something that could have been a snag working out for us in the long run.

Livingstone, Zambia is a bustling town that is obviously prospering greatly from the misfortunes of the folks in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The folks in Zimbabwe spoke contemptuously of the Zambians and how they used to have to drive over in their rattle-trap cars to buy gasoline in Zimbabwe and how poor Zambia was. But that’s all obviously past tense. Now Zimbabweans drive to Botswana to do their shopping, and the Zambians we ran into were only too happy to comment about how nice things were in Zambia these days! The contrast between the two towns right now is stunning. The joke going around is that, where the Big Five in Africa are the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard, the Big Five in Zimbabwe are meat, corn, sugar, rice and milk. It’s sad, and we can only hope things improve in Zimbabwe. I’m glad we stayed where we did, and very glad we went… and very glad we left when we did. (As a side note, it’s amazing that even South Africans keep saying how completely out of touch with the reality of what’s going on in Zimbabwe that South Africa’s president is.)

The airport is small but was packed with a number of flights going out around the same time. Had one bad moment at the airport where British Airways-Comair turned out to be the only airline that actually weighed carry-ons and mine, of course, was over the 7kg limit. The woman gave Fred a white tag for his bag and told me I’d get a red tag at the aircraft. I asked if I’d be able to keep the bag with me and she said yes. I wasn’t so sure… It turned out that if folks didn’t have a white tag, there were people at the side of the aircraft making them turn over their bags to be stowed in the nose of the plane (with the referenced red tag). And there was NO WAY I was going to give up a bag with thousands of dollars in owned and rented camera gear. Fortunately, Fred realized what was going on immediately and without a word simply ran interference for me. He kept putting his 6′3″ frame between me and the folks who were trying to check the bags for white tags and engaged them in conversation so I could simply get on board. Boy was I relieved when I got into the cabin and tucked the offending backpack into the overhead compartment… (I’d apologize to British Airways for this, but the fact is that between us, our carry-ons were under the limit, and if I’d known they were going to enforce it, we could have moved things from one bag to the other and been totally within the rules. So it was a no-harm no-foul situation.)

The only other bad moment was when some idiot decided I wasn’t moving fast enough to get through a security area and pushed a movable gate onto my ankle. I begin to understand why it’s not the Ugly American Tourist in parts of Africa, but rather the Ugly South African… (It’s kind of nice not to be the only Bad Guy in the tourism world…)

Fred agreed to take charge of figuring out what our options are for sight-seeing tomorrow. (Both of us began by feeling reluctant to impose on one of our South African friends (from the Delta) who had volunteered to be our guide, and then it all became academic when I realized I couldn’t find the card he’d given me with his contact info.) We’ve settled on a tour of a gold mine and a driving tour of Johannesburg. We should be back at the hotel just in time for me to head off to my flight.

Civilization does have its nice points, by the way. Nice meal, nice bar downstairs, nice room with coffee machine and a lovely tub to soak in…

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